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The Cutting Edge: Computing / Technology / Innovation : Basic Rule for PCs: Be Prepared

October 19, 1994|RICHARD O'REILLY

Personal computers are generally reliable, but the truth is, they aren't nearly as reliable as they need to be if you're using them for anything truly important. So, as any good Boy Scout will tell you, the only solution is to be prepared.

The basic rules for PC disaster prevention are pretty simple, and you've probably heard many of them before. But--tell the truth--you're probably not doing what you ought to be doing. So here's a little refresher course. Think of it as taking medicine.

The first rule is the most obvious, but still the most important: Always have your critical data files backed up.

If your business is in your computer in the form of bookkeeping files and customers' lists and an inventory database, you need a rigorous tape backup system. One reliable method is to make full copies of your hard disk in daily rotation on several tapes, at least one of which you take off premises afterward. Think how you'd feel if a fire melted your computer equipment along with your business.

Next, there are programs you can run on your computer that may help stave off problems, or at least give you an earlier warning if something is wrong. One is Norton Utilities, the first of the utility programs that became famous by letting people retrieve files they had accidentally erased. An alternative is PC Tools. Over the years, some of the more popular utility functions have been included in MS-DOS, but there is still room for the extra features these utilities provide.

Computer viruses aren't a big danger if you aren't swapping disks full of programs with your friends or downloading files from careless bulletin board service operators. But sometimes even shrink-wrapped software from the store can come infected, so it's a good idea to have an anti-virus program running on your computer as well.

Frankly, I have mixed feelings about anti-virus programs. I sometimes have to temporarily disable them if I'm loading a new program, particularly a Windows program. Upgrading an existing program usually causes my anti-virus program to go nuts. On balance, though, I think the protection is worth it.

The last important task is to keep a log of hardware and software changes you make to your computer, including printouts of the major DOS configuration files config.sys and autoexec.bat. You'll also want to note the contents and circumstances of any error messages or apparent system failures you incur. The context in which a problem occurs may be the best clue to what really went wrong.

All of these are basic steps that will help you be prepared when an emergency strikes. If, for instance, your hard disk crashes, the inconvenience will be minor if you have to have a replacement installed then restore your files from the tape backup made the night before. Hard disk crashes are pretty obvious and easy to diagnose. So are monitor failures.

But some problems seem inexplicable and defy repair attempts. We once had a computer that died at approximately six-month intervals. The manufacturer stood behind the warranty, eventually replacing every component inside the case at one time or another, including three motherboards. When the last motherboard also failed, we insisted on a new machine, provided somewhat reluctantly. That was more than two years ago and there hasn't been a problem since. Was the problem the computer case itself? Maybe.

Computers are exceedingly complex and they are getting more so. When you add in the increasing complexity of today's software, you have myriad ways in which software conflicts can mimic hardware problems and vice versa. Sometimes these difficulties will defy even the diagnostic programs you or your repair shop might have. The only solution is persistence, patience--and a good set of backup tapes and disks.

Richard O'Reilly is director of computer analysis for The Times. He can be reached at Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or via the Internet at, or via CompuServe at CIS:ROREILLY.


Editor's note: This is the last biweekly Computer File column by Richard O'Reilly. Beginning Nov. 16, he will write every fourth Wednesday in greater depth about products and issues of interest to computer consumers.

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